By Alex Katz and Colleen Long
Twitter on Friday agreed to hand over about three months' worth of tweets to a judge overseeing the criminal trial of an Occupy Wall Street protester, a case that has become a closely watched fight over how much access law enforcement agencies should have to material posted on social networks.
The social networking site had been threatened with steep fines if it did not comply with Judge Matthew Sciarrino Jr.'s order to turn over the records in the case of Malcolm Harris.
Twitter's lawyer, Terryl Brown, called the options it faced — waiving its right to appeal or being in held in contempt of court — "unfair" and "unjust," though ultimately Brown handed the judge a thick white envelope full of Harris' information.
"We are disappointed that Twitter is essentially giving up the fight," Harris' attorney Martin Stolar said after the court hearing.
The Manhattan district attorney's office said Harris' messages could show whether he was aware of the police orders he's charged with disregarding during a protest at the Brooklyn Bridge.
The case began as one of hundreds of disorderly conduct prosecutions after an Oct. 1 march in New York that brought the Occupy protest movement its first burst of worldwide attention. Harris was among more than 700 people arrested when protesters tried to cross the bridge, many on the roadway.
Police said demonstrators ignored warnings to stay on a pedestrian path. Harris, an editor for an online culture magazine, and others say they thought they had police permission to go on the roadway.
Prosecutors want tweets and user information from Sept. 15 to Dec. 31 that were taken down from the public site. After a certain period of time, tweets are automatically flushed out by the system and placed in the site's stored electronic records, Stolar said.
Harris, 23, said Friday that he did not delete any incriminating tweets. He told reporters he wasn't sure what the tweets might contain. "Three and a half months, a lot of nonsense," he said.
Asked whether the case had affected what he posted to Twitter, Harris said: "I guess you'd have to check the feed to find out. It's still public."
Earlier this year, Harris sought to block prosecutors from subpoenaing the information from Twitter Inc. The company stepped in after the judge ordered the messages to be turned over.
Harris had argued that seeking the accompanying user information violated his privacy and free association rights. The data could give prosecutors a picture of his followers, their interactions and his location at various points, Stolar said.
Twitter had said the case could put it in the unwanted position of having to take on legal fights that users could otherwise conduct on their own. Company lawyers argued that Harris had every right to fight the subpoena.
Its user agreements say users own content they post and can challenge demands for their records. The company argued in a court filing that it would be "a new and overwhelming burden" for Twitter to have to champion such causes for them.
The judge sided with the company on one point: It didn't have to turn over some of the tweets prosecutors' sought, because a federal law requires a court-approved search warrant, not just a subpoena, for stored electronic communications that are less than 180 days old.
Sciarrino said he would review all the material he ordered turned over and would provide "relevant portions" to prosecutors.
In a separate proceeding, Harris is challenging Sciarrino's ruling on handing over the tweets. Sciarrino said Friday that he will keep the records sealed at least until a Sept. 21 hearing on the matter.
Harris has pleaded not guilty and his trial is scheduled for December. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of 15 days in jail or a $500 fine, his lawyer said.